SURFER MAG: Is It Possible To “Wipe Out” the CO2 Footprint of Your Surf Travel?

How a program called SeaTrees helps surfers mitigate their environmental impact


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Most surfers identify as environmentally conscious citizens, but unless you’re driving to your local break in an all-electric vehicle powered by renewable energy (which some of you are, and thank you), and/or you’ve gone full-Fergal Smith and have given up air travel all together, you’re likely contributing to the global emissions crisis in your fossil-fueled pursuit of waves.

Whether it’s across town or across the world, getting to the surf is the most climate-impactful part of our lifestyle. A roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Bali releases about 5 metric tons of CO2 per passenger (almost three times what the average Indonesian emits in an entire year), and driving roundtrip from Oceanside to Trestles in a light-duty, gas-powered pickup truck emits about 75 pounds of CO2.

Transportation (including car and air travel) is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, but of course, a surfer’s emissions don’t stop there. The majority of wetsuits are still made from petroleum-based rubber, and your polyurethane-core, polyester-resin surfboard was born of crude oil.

So is there a way to atone for our surf-related impacts on the environment?

Sustainable Surf, the nonprofit creator of the Waste to Waves program and the Ecoboard Project, has just launched its newest environmental program, SeaTrees, which helps traveling and board-buying surfers mitigate their climate impact through financial contributions to “blue carbon” programs around the world, the amounts of which are based on the impact of your surf-related actions.

Surfers can go onto the SeaTrees website and choose what impact they want to “wipe out.” Wipe Out Your Quiver ($10) sequesters the amount of carbon emitted by manufacturing five new surfboards, Wipe Out Your Flight ($10-$60) calculates contribution based on the length of your roundtrip flight, and Wipe Out Your Annual Impact ($70-$160) is based off of the annual-per-capita footprint of the country in which you live.

For those looking for something a la carte, there’s an option to purchase “SeaTrees tokens”, each of which wipes out one ton of CO2.

Each “wipeout” you purchase protects and restores “blue carbon” ecosystems around the world–such as mangrove forests, kelp forests and entire coastal watersheds–which protect biodiversity, provide food and clean water for nearby communities, shield against coastal erosion and flooding, and most important in the context of climate change, store and sequester carbon.

Carbon sequestration (removing carbon from the atmosphere) is now considered essential to putting the Earth back on a path to survival. At this point in the crisis, emissions reduction isn’t going to be enough to reverse the damage humans have wrought. At the same time that the world works toward halting carbon emissions, it must also remove some of the staggering amounts of CO2 already released into the atmosphere—which is exactly what SeaTrees aims to do.

“We have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” says Sustainable Surf Co-Founder Michael Stewart.

Sustainable Surf Cofounder Michael Stewart, helping plant mangroves during a trip to Indonesia
Sustainable Surf Cofounder Michael Stewart, helping plant mangroves during a trip to Indonesia

SeaTrees programs support nature’s built-in tool for carbon sequestration: trees, which absorb and store carbon in their branches and leaves, as well as in the soil underneath them. (Natural sequestration systems like this are called “carbon sinks.”)

On Indonesia’s Biak Island, SeaTrees supports community efforts to protect and restore local mangrove forests, which have incredible sequestration abilities: One tree can store approximately 680 pounds of CO2 in its lifetime, and a mangrove forest can remove two-to-four times more CO2 than a tropical rainforest. But Indonesia has lost nearly 40 percent of its mangroves in the last 30 years, and tree loss not only eliminates sequestration, it also releases all of that stored carbon into the atmosphere, further propagating global warming.

In Cambodia, SeaTrees directs funds to the Southern Cardamom Mountains, where a UN-sanctioned program protects 497,000 hectares of old-growth tropical rainforest. Shielding this ecosystem from deforestation prevents the emission of 3 million tons of CO2 per year.

And in Southern California, where 90 percent of kelp forests have disappeared in the last 100 years, SeaTrees supports the replanting of kelp, an under-appreciated carbon sink that is an essential habitat to over 700 species of fish, invertebrates and algae.

Of course, while protecting these kinds of ecosystems is essential to halting and reversing global warming, “wiping out” your impact is just one of many tools necessary to fix the climate challenge, none of which can do the task on their own.

Which is why Stewart isn’t interested in calling SeaTrees a carbon offset. “We’re not offering a way for you to buy absolution or buy your way out of this,” he says, but rather “a direct way to help reverse the harmful impacts your surfing life is having on the oceans, and to leave a positive legacy instead.” SeaTrees is meant to be “only part of what you’re being asked to do as a human who wants a livable planet.”

The first step is, of course, reduction. Biking to surf, driving a higher-fuel-efficiency vehicle, cutting down on air travel (or at least spending the extra cash on a direct flight), buying boards made from recycled foam and wriggling your way into a Yulex wetsuit can decrease the emissions caused by your watery habit.

Whether you call them tokens, wipeouts or offsets, the point is that the world is way past the stage where neutralizing emissions is enough, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t crucial. To the question of whether climate-conscious surfers should focus on the reduction or removal of carbon, the answer is all of the above, and the time is right away.